A few years ago, President Xi Jinping gave a speech which offered his views on the role art should play in Chinese life. Questioning the pursuit of artistic goals which did not seem purely focused on inspiring the nation, he went on to assert that something seemed rotten in the world of contemporary artists:
Some don’t tell right from wrong, don’t distinguish between good and evil, present ugliness as beauty, exaggerate society’s dark side. Some are salacious, indulge in kitsch, are of low taste and have gradually turned their work into cash cows, or into ecstasy pills for sensual stimulation. Some invent things and write without basis. Their work is shoddy and strained; they have created cultural garbage.
Art has long been bothersome for the Chinese Communist Party. Over the course of the long years of the Cultural Revolution, reform of art and literature was seen as a necessity in bringing about a New China; Mao’s wife Jiang Qing was charged with overseeing this revolution, and doggedly set out to blunt the cutting edge of culture. As the Chinese suffered through moralistic new operas designed to reform their thought, she sat in her Beijing villa watching American movies and reading Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.
The inevitable confrontation between the spirit embodied by art—of freedom, creativity and the possibility of exploring diverse and contradictory ideas—and the autocratic tendencies of the CCP spilled onto the streets of Beijing and China’s other cities in the early summer of 1989. As Madeleine O’Dea notes in her new book The Phoenix Years: Art, Resistance and the Making of Modern China, there was an inevitability to the clashes of 1989:
The events … were long in the making. …. When [former Party Secretary] Hu Yaobang died it was like the crack from a starter’s gun, signalling that an event long anticipated could at last begin.
The events of that summer had been foreshadowed by protests in the latter years of the 1970s, specifically those which erupted after the death of Premier Zhou Enlai in 1976 and the later 1978 “Democracy Wall” movement. In both cases, art and literature had provided a forum for the sometimes allegorical, and sometimes very direct, expression of grievances.
For O’Dea in The Phoenix Years, as for China, 1989 was the threshold year—one which marked the crossing of an invisible line, both personal and creative, for many of the artists who form the subject of the book. The Phoenix Years is partly a memoir by a journalist whose experience of the country extends back to the 1980s; part historical account; and part biographical survey of the lives of China’s leading contemporary artists, many of whom made their name producing work rooted in the politics of the late 1970s and 1980s.
When I spoke to Madeleine O’Dea, I asked her how she had alighted on this polymorphous concept. “It took me a long time to admit that was what I was planning to do,” she tells me from her home in Australia.
I wanted to tell a story—a post-Cultural Revolution story—and for people at the end of it to know more about what had happened in China over the last forty years. But I also wanted them to feel something about that story, to care, and to understand that these are people like us; people we can relate to.’
Having spent much of the last thirty years watching the Chinese art world—and the last seven actively reporting on it—it became gradually obvious that China’s contemporary artists might provide a vehicle to carry the broader story of China’s recent changes and challenges.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that in the ten years between 1979 and 1989 the history of China and its contemporary art were so deeply intertwined,” she observes.
And the artists and their work also tell us something vital about this period; namely that the forces for change were coming just as much from below as from above—and the people who really express that in a way that is visible and can be shown to people in the West are the artists.
Those artists include Sheng Qi, who chopped off his finger in a moment of despair in the aftermath of June 4th; Guo Jian, famous for his propaganda-inspired paintings, and whose diorama of Tiananmen Square covered in minced meat got him arrested by the Beijing police in 2014; and Huang Rui, one of the founders of the avant garde “Stars” group, which also included Wang Keping and Ma Desheng. Huang had also been an editor of underground literary journal Today, which played a crucial role in articulating the ideals of the Democracy Wall protests. The lives and work of these artists are inextricably bound up with the politics of this period, and they continue to wrestle with their own personal involvement, and the ultimate futility of their radicalism, in their work today. Their work sometimes monomaniacally confronts the reality that, as O’Dea puts it,
a long-cherished vision of the future collapsed, to be replaced by the great compromise offered by the Government: Leave the governing (and the writing of history) to us, and we will make you rich.
Though the narrative of these intensely political years forms the dramatic centre of the book, the social and cultural shifts of more recent times also come under scrutiny both by O’Dea and the artists she follows. As she observes, however, artwork which in other countries would be considered as relatively gentle social commentary takes, in China, a different tenor. The new generations of Chinese artists are
very concerned about development; concerned about the environment; concerned about issues of sexuality—so the issues now are more social, but because this is China, they become political as well.
Many of them are unable to show their work in China, despite its often indirect nature, so increasingly hope to exhibit abroad, and ensure that their pieces make it onto the internet so that they can be seen at home. “In the end,” O’Dea comments, “China is the audience they care about.”
O’Dea is skeptical about the direction of travel evident in contemporary China, in particular the increasing restrictions on personal freedom that have marked the Xi era. “People are finding the situation there increasingly challenging, and nobody knows how far it will all go,” she comments.
A lot of the initiatives just seem so random—I mean, why ban The Big Bang Theory? It’s difficult to know from one day to the next what will be acceptable and what won’t be.
As she observes in the book’s conclusion, if one sees China’s recent history as a series of peaks and troughs,
there is no doubt now that we are seeing a trough, one of the deepest of the last four decades.
However, she professes positivity about the sheer level of energy and creativity in the country—“it’s just remarkable”—and despite the authoritarian nature of the state, the didactic rhetoric emerging from the president, and the sense that the insurrectionary spirit of 1989 has been exhausted by the pursuit of materialist goals—O’Dea remains an optimist about China’s future: “You’ve got to be,” she says, laughing. “Haven’t you?”